By Mike Derderian
A gypsy I want to be, but sadly I’m deeply rooted in a land that doth not belong to me. Fancy a cup of tea under the green fig tree that once nourished us and filled our hearts with glee. Where we danced and danced until our bodies wearily sighed and to its deathbed in peace reclined.
So dear reader, if I invite you on trip of imagination in search of your roots and mine in a land its surface is covered with sizzling thyme, would you go or you’d simply decline under the pretext that with your life you are most satisfied.
Sometimes I think I should be dubbed the Rhyming Sailor instead of the Wandering Gitano, whose search of love has finally come to end, and in the arms of his beloved Mujer has found refuge.
Poetically speaking, the imagery in the above description could be a metaphor for a far more beautiful reality that exists in a distant land, where self-banished gypsies roam freely under the burning sun. Singing ballades of lost love, their enameled nails fiercely caress the strings of their burnt guitars, releasing its fiery lyrics.
Exiled to a land where nostalgic words govern the minds of those gypsies, I found myself last week inspired by Tony Gatlif’s 2004 Exiles, a sensual road-trip movie, in which two lovers set out on a journey of self-discovery where they cross over lands they’ve never seen but have always heard of.
On the same year of its release Gatlif nabbed a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival and Exiles was nominated for a Golden Palm. A juxtaposition of visuals put together with a deep and well-amplified soundtrack, this 104-minute film will take you to an underworld of music, gypsies, Algerians, love and hate, plus everything that exists beyond the barren wasteland of mental staleness.
Romain Duris and Lubna Azabal brilliantly enact the two lovers Zano and Naima, who decide to travel to Algeria on foot in search of their past. Naima is of Algerian roots, whereas Zano’s entire family lived in Algeria before fleeing to France.
Both French actors Duris and Azabal pushed the limit with their haunting portrayal of the sexually driven couple, whose love and hate relationship for each other is more physical than spiritual, however on their way to Algeria they get to know and respect each other.
Naima and Zano’s love is primal, instinctive and governed by lechery, as Gatlif’s character play with Naima is obviously a rebellion against certain social norms.
Naima is the sort of female protagonist that enjoys her social and sexual liberty, however along the way she begins to undergo and experience an inner struggle regarding her Arabian origin that leads to nowhere. Zano becomes an improved version of the man he was, a reckless adventurer, but still regards himself as an outsider.
On their way they meet a brother and a sister, who are trying to earn enough money to travel to France, even if it means to loiter and sleep in crumbling deserted buildings. Habib and Leila offer the tired couple a shelter and this is when Leila’s physiological journey begins.
“Why don’t you speak Arabic?” Leila asks Naima, who is caught off guard by the embarrassing question. “My father never wanted me to speak Arabic or go to my homeland,” answered the perplexed woman with a note of sorrow.
There are two types of people living in this world: those who agree and those who disagree and this is what we call equilibrium. The same applies to the issue of the veil, which is looked upon by westerners as a “means to suppress women’s freedom.” Gatlif, near the end of the movie, tackles this issue by giving Naima an inner voice that rejects the concept that she has to be veiled in order to travel around in her birthplace, Algeria.
The film opens with a sequence of loud music and distorted images that soon come into focus revealing the surface of a human flesh. As the music and the noise continue a female voiceover in English can be heard desperately shouting, “Those who live without democracy… its an emergency… emergency.”
“Why don’t we go to Algeria?” Zano, in a very serious tone, asked Naima, who was lying half naked in bed. After bursting into a laughing frenzy, Naima begins to contemplate the idea.
As much as it is a journey of self-exploration for two central French characters of Arabic roots, Exiles also explores into Gatlif’s own cultural background and nationality. The Algerian born director, whose birth name is Michel Dahmani, is of gypsy roots, which explains the emphasis on gypsy themes and music found in the film. Surprisingly, most of the original tracks that were used in the soundtrack were co-written and composed by Gatlif himself.
On the audio level, you’ll simply love the way Gatlif combined some of his banal, yet moving, images with sensual and vibrant sounds and music. This brilliant film that was shot in France, Spain, Morocco and Algeria also co-stars Leila Makhlouf, Habib Cheik and Zouhir Gacem.
Gatlif’s message overshadows the two main characters in Exiles as it offers a blunt take on the traditional, religious and political aspects of life, as both Zano and Naima discuss issues on sexuality, freedom and music on their way to a homeland that obviously still haunts the director himself in a film that will certainly engross one’s spirit and soul. There isn’t a single minute of boredom in this witty and thought-provoking film.